Engineers from Burton Inc. in Japan have rolled out a "True 3D" display, which evolved from work begun five years previously by teams at Keio University and Japan's national institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). While most 3D displays available today involve a form of optical illusion that depends on the parallax or disparity inherent in human binocular vision, this new system, which can function in air or under water, needs no screen of any sort, and the effect is quite impressive.
"Most current 3D devices project pictures onto a 2D screen, and make the pictures appear 3D through an optical illusion. But this device actually shows images in mid-air, so a feature of this system is that it enables 3D objects to be viewed naturally." said Burton engineer Hayato Watanabe.
The Burton system functions by focusing laser light into points which stimulate oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the air to a plasma excitation level. Computer control of the laser's position can cause the dots to coalesce into recognizable patterns very similar to a hologram, but literally in thin air.
"This system can create about 50,000 dots per second, and its frame rate is currently about 10-15 fps. But we're working to improve the frame rate to 24-30 fps," Watanabe explained.
In the demonstration video following this article, a green laser shines up from below into a small tank of water, but to create displays in air, more powerful lasers are needed. By combining red, green and blue lasers, the Burton team has managed to generate color images, which opens up a vast array of possible uses as the technology improves.
"As the first application for this, we thought of digital signage. Also, because this system makes 3D objects look natural, it could be used for analyzing 3D objects, and if its precision can be improved, it could be used in health care, too," said Watanabe.
Indeed, it seems we could be witnessing the birth of the technology that might one day allow autonomous robots to beam important messages such as, say, "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope." We'll just have to wait and see.